Opinion Masquerading As News

The media’s techniques for smuggling opinion into what are supposed to be news stories have been used so much that often we don’t even notice. Here’s an example from the November 4 New York Times, in a story about the Muslim riots in Paris. Most of the article simply describes the events and the political fallout for various French politicians.

It’s in the last paragraph that the reporting of news gives way to disguised opinion: “The continuing unrest appears to be fueled less by perceived police brutality than by the frustration of young men who have no work and see little hope for the future.” To which any perceptive reader should respond, “Says who?”

Notice the use of the impersonal “appears.” Appears to whom? The writer, the French politicians, the rioters? The way this opinion is phrased obscures the fact that it is a mere opinion, an interpretation of the events described, not a fact. As such, the source of the opinion should be identified so we can evaluate its usefulness and integrity. But to say it “appears,” as though it were an act of God or nature, is dishonest. Surely the reporter could find someone to give him a quote expressing the opinion, so that at least we’d know whose ax is being ground. Without attribution, however, the opinion then must be that of the writer and the editors of the Times. At which point we need to be asking why they’re putting their opinion into a news story.

But it’s not just the concealment of the opinion’s source that is troubling. The opinion itself reflects a certain ideology, a set of prejudices about human behavior. To attribute the riot to “frustration” and “no work” is to indulge a highly questionable view of human action that reduces it to psychology or economics. This materialist determinism––the idea that material causes in the environment, especially economic ones, are the prime mover of humans––is not a scientific fact but an ideological prejudice whose roots lay in pseudo-scientists like Marx and Freud. It discards the fact of human free will and ignores the many motivations of people that explain their actions. Sometimes people burn and loot out of economic frustration and hopelessness; sometimes they do so because of the innate joy in destruction and in the power that such destruction temporarily bestows; and sometimes they do so just because they can. After all, humans are complicated, with many conflicting sources of behavior.

Of course, the interpretation chosen by the Times story is one consistent with the liberal-left world-view which holds that notions like free will and unmotivated evil have been exposed as superstitions by science. People in reality are passive victims of the larger forces controlling their destinies. Thus the unjust economic system (i.e. capitalism) and its oppression are to blame, for man does live by bread alone, and so if he acts up it’s only because he doesn’t have enough bread. All those Muslim youths have no autonomous wills, no spiritual beliefs that justify their actions. They are passive victims who can only react to the injustice around them.

So pervasive is this determinist prejudice, however, that I’m betting the Times reporter and editors wouldn’t even think that it is an opinion. It’s just one of those things that “everybody knows.” And indeed, this prejudice has so infected the schools and universities and government agencies that it does seem to be a simple fact. But it’s not. It’s an opinion about human nature, an interpretation based on questionable premises. And such opinions have no place in a news story unless they are clearly identified as an opinion and attributed to a source so that the reader can make a critical judgment.

This piece first appeared at theOneRepublic Journal.